Monday, October 27, 2014

The Years (A book post)

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Alas, I am accepting the fact that I am unlikely to finish my 14 x 14 in 2014 challenge on time.  It's a lot of books, folks!

But here's another one down: The Years by Virginia Woolf.  I love the way Woolf writes, and her descriptive turn of phrase kept me going through this sprawling and disjointed look at one large extended family through forty years.  Time passes without any explanation of exactly what happened in the mean time, leaving the reader piecing it together through passing remarks and a few recollections. 

Along the way, the characters spend plenty of time musing and philosophizing about the meaning of life and just what they want out of it, and this adds to the plodding sense of tragedy as the years roll by and youthful possibility is replaced by elderly regrets and "what-if's". 

It's not all tragedy or meaninglessness, however, as there are moments described where characters find themselves sublimely happy.  Those moments are the times when the characters are alone and truly living in the moment, enjoying the world as it is now rather than looking to the future or to the past.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why are we Overwhelmed? (A book post)

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My latest read, related to Maxed Out which I recently read and posted about, has been another book on that same theme of parents trying to juggle work and love and play called Overwhelmed

Although the topic is very much the same, the authors' approaches differed.  While Alcorn is a blogger and coming from the tech business world, Schulte is a journalist.  Those different backgrounds show in the work.  Alcorn's style is much more personal memoir, but Schulte only uses a few personal examples and many more interviews.

Overwhelmed starts off with the author's encounter with a time-use researcher, and then follows her to a conference on leisure and time.  She concludes that it is about the balance in life between Work, Love, and Play and that forms the structure for the rest of the book with solid sections devoted to each of those three spheres. 

The book deals with both men and women, mothers and fathers, although there is more focus on women and parents.  But this is about what is going on with all of us - everyone who is caught up in the culture of overwhelm and busyness. 

This is a well-researched, thought-provoking, and ultimately useful book.  Now I'm mulling over the balance for myself: Work, Love, and Play.  Can I elevate play to equality with those other two?  Woah!  Now that feels like a challenge.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In our Homeschool: A Little Change Does Us Good

A few posts ago I lamented that things had become rough around here: kids fighting more with each other, kids complaining and being rude to parents, parents rushed and cranky and yelling at kids, and general deteriorating conditions all around.

At this point, as a veteran of many such episodes throughout my life as a parent, I know what these symptoms point toward.  We get like this with each other when the routine that shapes our lives is no longer working, and when no one is getting their needs met well enough to feel resilient to the little irritations that are an inevitable part of life.  When my children were very little it was easy - if we started to all feel cranky with each other it meant I needed to take them outside to a playground and run and play until they were exhausted, then bring them home and take advantage of their rest time to read a book or put my own feet up (or get some work done, but no matter what, it was Fill Their Tank, then Use that Time for myself).

Now that they are older it's not as simple as outdoor play until they drop.  They want different things now, like for us to play video games with them, listen to a story idea that they thought of as they lay in bed this morning, or help them sew a costume for their medieval role play game that they have made up with their sibling.  That's the kind of involved quality time they want from me.  But they also want space and autonomy now!

They want long stretches of uninterrupted time on the computer, or alone in their rooms with an audio book and their lego collection, or out in the woods pretending to stalk deer.  And they want to have a lot of choice about what they are learning and how and when.

The other part of the puzzle here was that I took a sabbatical from work this year, and during that time our expectations of what would get done in a normal "school" day (many of which are also "work days" for me when I am NOT on sabbatical) ballooned into a much larger thing.  Now that I'm back at work, the expectations for homeschooling time still stayed high - and it's been too much for me to really keep up with so I always feel rushed and harried and like I'm failing at Doing It All, Well.

So, clearly time for a change!

We have scrapped our old routine, and are instead doing:

1.  Morning Basket

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This is one of Charlotte Mason's ideas.  In our interpretation, it is a basket that I fill with different things each week, such as: literature to read out loud, poetry to read out loud, flashcards, sketch books and drawing exercises, educational board games, music to listen to, art books to do picture study with, etc.  These are all the lovely things that sometimes end up feeling like "extras" when we are too invested in "getting curriculum done", and they are also the sort of things that we would want to do together.  We sit down with our basket at the table and spend just about 45 minutes with the contents, give or take depending on the day.  We do it first thing after morning chores and breakfast, so we are all fresh and don't feel too rushed yet.

2.  Daily Files

Daily Work FIles

We had been using an assignment chart that showed all of the months assignments, but a few things were happening: they wouldn't check off something they had done, they would check off something they hadn't done, we would fall really far behind and I would feel the pressure to make them catch up, they would look at it and feel overwhelmed and not sure where to start and freak out.

The daily files are a nice solution to those problems: there is a file for each kid for Monday-Friday and I've torn out the pages from the math books, etc. and put them in for each day. I also write out a short checklist of things that need to be done that don't fit in a file (music practice, language CD's, stuff like that).  When the work is finished it is handed to me to quickly assess and then either recycle it or 3 hole punch it and add it to the growing portfolio of finished work.

They have a very simplified view of their work: what is in today's file?  So far they are cruising through this work on their own without it being a time burden to anyone. 

3.  Unit Studies

Instead of plowing through curriculum for science and history, we are going to do monthly unit studies for each of them, on topics of their choosing.  They will work with me to choose a topic, I will get a bunch of resources from the library for them, then they will work for about an hour a day for 3 weeks on studying the topic how they wish.  Week 4 will be Presentation Week, with a written report and one or two other projects being completed and presented by Friday of that week.  This autonomy and interest-based work makes them much happier, which of course makes us all much happier.  (Their topic choices for November?  He chose "written languages around the world" and she chose "Norse Mythology").

After only one week of the change, so far we are really happy about it!  Sometimes you just need a Change.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On the Homestead

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I bought this book with some of my birthday money: The Weekend Homesteader.  It is a series of projects to work through to develop your own sustainable homestead, and the most helpful part for me is that the projects are organized by month of the year. 

As I read through the book, I started to organize a To Do list for our place organized by month.  Some months just have less in them (December, January, and February) so seeing that I put some of the indoor projects we have been putting off into those months. 

October's Tasks:

  • Harvest from the garden and clean out the garden beds
  • Move the raised beds up closer to the house
  • Slaughter and freeze the meat birds we raised
  • Set up a hoop house over one raised bed
  • Plant garlic
  • Plant flower bulbs
  • Build the pig pen
  • plant winter greens in the hoop house (spinach, kale, hardy lettuce varieties)
  • harvest and preserve apple crop
Kids in the Garden

Another step toward getting better organized to be homesteaders was a conversation I had with my husband about our weekly schedules.  I work every day except Saturday (sometimes I have to work Saturday too, but not every Saturday) and Monday, and my husband works a normal Monday-Friday, so this means that the only day the whole family is together is Saturday.  If we are going to have a homestead, we need to do all that work on Saturday - so no scheduling other stuff or expecting to sleep in or have a lazy day.

If we get up on Saturday and the whole family gets to work, we can accomplish a lot.  We're calling Saturday "Farming Day" and making that our highest priority on that day, and it's actually nice to have the family out working together and getting lots of fresh air.

And that's what is going on here on the Homestead!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Does anyone actually read Gertrude Stein? (A Book Post)

Three Lives by Stein

I am still plugging away at my 14 x 14 in 2014 Reading Challenge, but with the realization that time is short I'm looking for more books that are "double dippers" and apply to more than one category of the fourteen. 

Since one of my categories is "Books to Read Before You Die" and another is "Women's Studies" I took the step of flipping through the 1001 Books to Read Before you Die looking for books written by women.  It's a depressingly smaller list - and forget about the selections from pre-1800. I was very discouraged as I flipped through the book and then it randomly opened to a page on Gertrude Stein.

Of course I know who Gertrude Stein was - she's notorious as part of that ex-pat group from pre-WWI, and as a lesbian.  But although most people I know seem to know who she was, no one seems to actually read her writings.  Her books were not part of any college course I took (including the Women's Lit class) - does anyone actually read Gertrude Stein?

I chose to read Three Lives and had a mixed experience with it.  Her narrative style, which avoids sticking to a plot line and instead seems like the sometimes repetitive descriptive style that would come from verbal communication, was refreshing and engaging for me.  This book is really just a trio of character sketches, describing the lives of three unrelated women: one controlling spinster german servant, one black woman, and one young german girl who was brought over and married off into another german family. 

I loved the first sketch, of "Good Anna".  Perhaps I just felt a kinship with her:

"She worked away her appetite, her health and strength, and always for the sake of those who begged her not to work so hard.  To her way of thinking, in her stubborn, faithful, german soul, this was the right way for a girl to do."

But when I got to the second life, that of Melanctha, I just couldn't tolerate the racism enough to actually finish reading it - so sadly I don't know what ended up happening to Melanctha.  I know the time period being what it was that I should try to read this in the context which it was written, but I just couldn't do it.  Boo to that.

And then, soured by that, I didn't enjoy the third sketch as much either.  By the time I skipped to that, I was spotting more racism and was irritated by the attribution of personality traits to the "natures" of various ethnicities. 

So, mixed results but at least now I can say that I actually have read Gertrude Stein!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The path can be rough at times


I'm going through a rough patch with my kids and our homeschooling.  The going has gotten tough, so the tough get ... cranky?  tired?  ... creative?

These times come and go, and I know what I really need to do is shake our routine up, put in more fun, change the schedule, or something like that.  But I'm too tired to be creative right now, and I wish they would just ... just conform to the routine we have right now and stop making waves. 

Of course, that's not going to happen.  My children are not exactly great at conforming or not complaining to me when they are unhappy (that's not to say they can't cope in social situations where they have to conform for others - they can - but with me they are going to complain eventually).

Big breath.  In. Out.  Ok - I can do this. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Are We Maxed Out? (a book post)

Maxed Out

I took this book to the middle school Con (conference/weekend at camp) that I chaperoned last weekend: Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn.  The title of the book on my lap started some conversation among the parent chaperones taking a brief break on the porch of the dining hall (2 other moms and a dad).  Why do we feel so maxed out?  What forces push us into pushing ourselves to the brink?

I noted that often it seems to be a sense of competiveness that does me in - I simply have a hard time seeing anyone else do something (anything) without an inward thought of "I should be able to do that too".  The mom who is also incredibly fit and athletic?  I should be able to do that too.  The other mom who does lots of volunteer work?  I should be able to do that too (along with the fitness, this is additive and I don't give up the old goals as I pile on the new ones).  Clearly, this is unsustainable!

Another mom noted that she doesn't feel competitive, but rather overwhelmed with all the possibilities.  There were so many options available in life, and it made it hard to choose just enough without ending up with too much to do.  The other mom disagreed with both of us and noted that for her it was that there were just a lot of obligations and not really anyone else to do them.  Kids have to be picked up if there is no bus, family members have to be cared for, chores have to be done, money has to be earned and managed. 

In a somewhat stereotypical turn of events, the dad in the conversation didn't really relate to these notions of pressure that we moms were talking about.  I'm sure many dads do feel maxed out, but at least in the circle I talk to it seems to be based on actual external events far more than it is for us moms.  We seem to be doing it to ourselves in addition to taking on the external realities.

The author of this book is the creator of the blog "Working Moms Break" which I've been reading for some years now.  The blog talks a lot about the realities of balancing work with motherhood and on trying to make American work-culture more family-friendly.  The book is much more of a personal story, though, with only short side-bar conversations about the big picture of what is happening for other parents and how American parenting and working compares to other parts of the world.  And, as a personal memoir, of course the issue for the reader becomes how much you can relate to the point of view of the author. 

Just as I found when I read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean InI could relate to some aspects of Alcorn's tale but not to others.  It would be easy to pick apart this story and call the author out with phrases like "just suck it up" or "plenty of people have it worse than you, so stop complaining".  But that's not the point at all - this is her life and I really can't judge another person and how they feel.  Alcorn was driven to panic attacks and illness by her efforts to be a working mother and had to step back for the sake of her own sanity, basically.  I have been there too, feeling like I was drowning and just desperately needing a way out.  I have struggled with the constant back and forth of "maybe I should just quit my job" when the juggling act gets too frenetic or exhausting.

Ultimately, Alcorn's story doesn't give me any answers for my own situation, anymore than Sandberg's did.  Whether I respond to the pressures by leaning in or by admitting that I'm maxed out, I think the real issue is not whether I measure my life against another woman's but whether I can STOP DOING THAT.  It's their life, and this is my life.

I'm sometimes Maxed Out because I try to be Everything to Everyone and because society is only too happy to let me do that.  I'm also maxed out because there are real barriers out there (sexism, opportunity costs, or as the narrator of a nature documentary I watched as child noted "it is harder for the female members of the group to keep up while also carrying the young")  I can Lean In and push harder against the barriers, but here's another truth I have learned in my life - at some point will and desire are not enough.  At some point the sacrifice of yourself and your health are too much. 

We need to keep talking about this, and the personal narrative has its place in the conversation.  Alcorn's is a perfectly decent addition to that part of the discussion: well-written, representative of a slice of the population, and trying for some objectivity.  It could be a great spur to conversation, such as the one I had on the porch.  If nothing else, bringing the pressures out and talking about them takes away some of the sting.